One of the most exciting aspects of a new season is the ascension of bit or role players from the previous year to stars in the lineup. For example, no one saw the rise of Te’Von Coney coming, not even his own coaches, and now he is an All-America candidate and a staple on the defense. In 2015, CJ Prosise was a converted receiver and third team running back, some injuries later he was a 1,000 yard rusher and a third round NFL draft pick.
Who can make a similar leap in 2018? Technically any player can, but here are five players who figure to see the field a lot and the Irish team needs to break through to be a playoff caliber program.
Troy Pride, Cornerback
If I were to rank the young corners I was most excited about following the disaster of 2016, Pride would have been near the bottom, behind Julian Love, Shaun Crawford, and Donte Vaughn. He earned time as a freshman, but was overmatched physically and his counterparts showed more of a penchant for making plays. Pride was a popular player for offenses to target during games.
Fast forward two seasons and not only has Pride forced his way into the starting lineup, a move that may have provided the impetus for senior Nick Watkins to transfer to Houston, but there is talk he could be the best corner on the team. He has noticeably bulked up his upper body while maintaining his excellent speed that separates him from other players.
Pride is seen to be so athletically gifted The Athletic’s Bruce Feldman named him to his annual “Freaks List” highlighting the physical freaks of college football. With his physical skills, a good season from Pride could convince him to head to the NFL early, as college scouts love a good forty time. Pride boasted a 4.30 during spring testing for the Irish.
Alohi Gilman, Safety
This barely qualifies as a prediction as most people have already penciled it in to happen. The former Navy starting safety could have run with the first team last season according to Brian Kelly, had he been ruled eligible by the NCAA. Instead, he worked with the first group over the spring, and whenever talk of the impending safety battle comes up during the upcoming fall camp, it revolves around Jalen Elliott’s spot. Gilman is seen as a shoe in.
Due to his style of play as someone who relishes contact, he is likely to be a fan favorite immediately. The defense Mike Elko brought and that Clark Lea will run in 2018 is at it’s best centered around strong play from the safeties. Gilman figures to be a key player in that regard. The coaches loved Gilman’s ability to pick up the calls and nuances of the defense, and view him as a leader back there, even though he is relatively new to the team. A big season is not only needed from him, but it’s almost expected.
Chase Claypool, Wide Receiver
I actually called for this last season, so maybe I’ll just write about it every year until his is gone. The talent is clearly there. I know it’s popular to say “if he wants it, he can be the best receiver on the team”, but who knows what he “wants”? His ascension depends on a number of things: mastering the nuances of the position, better quarterback play, and opportunity.
The opportunity should be there, the other things will remain unknown till they play actual games. But, oh boy if Claypool unlocks his potential he can be a special player and enjoy a junior breakout campaign similar to that of Jeff Samardzija in 2005. Maybe not in numbers, but in impact anyway.
I’m not one to say whether there will be a breakout this season, since I predicted it would come last season, but it did not. What I will say is there is no clear incumbent better than him (St. Brown) on the depth chart and no classmate who has been more productive (Stepherson) standing in his way to the field. It’s all right in front of him.
Liam Eichenberg, Left Tackle
It’s been said many times, but for every game that’s taken place during the Kelly era, the starting left tackle was an eventual first round pick. A fact that is likely not lost on the young Eichenberg, who is currently listed to replace top 10 NFL draft pick Mike McGlinchey at left tackle. He arrived very highly regarded as a recruit from Ohio, but lost out on a starting role to classmate Tommy Kraemer last spring. Then he watched Kraemer platoon with freshman Robert Hainsey at right tackle. So, he essentially lost a battle to two players.
However, he played well enough in the spring to stop a move from right to left tackle for Hainsey, and allowed the coaches to move Kraemer to his more natural right guard spot. Perhaps the light finally came on for Eichenberg, and maybe the switch of offensive line coaches was actually good for him. Either way, Eichenberg has the potential and opportunity to become a house hold name for the Irish in 2018 and insert himself as another name in the long list of star left tackles for Brian Kelly’s Notre Dame teams.
Khalid Kareem, Defensive End
Speaking of players who may have caused a move to another school. Khalid Kareem came on at the end of 2017 and into the spring of 2018. His rise perhaps making a move for 2017 starter Jay Hayes to Georgia a little more practical. Kareem is a popular breakout pick due to his play and the departure of Hayes, but it would be really, really great if those prognostications came to fruition.
Notre Dame is long on playable options at both defensive end spots, but short on playmaking from a pass rush standpoint. Of the Hayes, Okwara, Kareem triumvirate; Kareem has seen the least amount of time. In some ways he is the least known, and therefore has the most potential.
Kareem made an impact on limited snaps, therefore the assumption is with more snaps he’ll have a greater impact. That’s not always the case, but it is sorely needed in this one. Notre Dame is strong in a lot of areas on defense, singular pass rush not among them. If Kareem can establish himself as a pass rushing force, without the need for the blitz, the benefits are well established in the football world.